It’s been two years since Orlando City announced the signing of Nani, four-time Premier League winner and European champion, to a Designated Player contract. In that time, the Portuguese has earned the captain’s armband and helped lift the Lions to the MLS is Back Tournament final and their first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.
As we look forward to his third year in purple, let’s take a stroll down memory lane through Nani’s best Orlando City moments so far:
The 2019 MLS regular season opened less than two weeks after Nani signed, so it was always going to be tough to get the former Manchester United star up to full fitness to start the match. However, Nani was declared ready for a substitute role against NYCFC, and he proved he didn’t need the full 90 minutes to make a mark.
Nani entered the game alongside Dom Dwyer in the 70th minute with Orlando City trailing 2-1. Not five minutes after stepping onto the Exploria Stadium pitch for the first time, the captain provided his first moment of magic:
Nani’s inch-perfect pass released Dwyer behind the defense, leading to Tesho Akindele’s first goal with Orlando and a come-from-behind point to start the year. Orlando City remains undefeated in home openers going into 2021.
Raining on the Rapids
Nani racked up three assists through March 2019 but had yet to score when Orlando City welcomed in the Colorado Rapids on April 6. After going down early on a Kei Kamara goal, the captain brought a full house to its feet with a towering header to open his MLS account.
Orlando took a 2-1 lead into the half, when torrential downpours and lightning stretched the halftime break to an hour. Undeterred, the crowd remained through the rain and through two Rapids goals, staying to see Chris Mueller level the score at 3-3 in the 81st minute.
What looked like another draw turned out to be a bit more special. Rapids center back Axel Sjöberg committed a handball in the box with just minutes until stoppage time and Nani stepped up to face former USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard with the game on the line.
If the debut showed a brief glimpse of what Nani could do, it seemed like this night against Colorado was when he captured the hearts of the Orlando City faithful. Nani finished the 2019 season with 12 goals and 10 assists, becoming the first double-double player in Club history and the first to lead the team in both categories in the same season.
Florida is Purple
Nani missed the first two games of the 2020 season through suspension and then saw MLS, and the whole sports world, shut down due to COVID-19 two days before he was to make his season debut against Chicago Fire FC. It would be nearly four months before Orlando City would play another game, meaning Nani went over nine months total without featuring in a competitive game.
Upon arriving at ESPN Wide World of Sports for the MLS is Back Tournament, Nani seemed hell-bent on making up for lost time.
His first chance would come in the first-ever meeting between Orlando City and Inter Miami, the Lions’ new southern neighbors who entered the league with the David Beckham-led hype machine fully engaged. Miami grabbed the lead through Juan Agudelo in the 50th minute, but Nani slipped in a perfect assist to Mueller at the back post to draw level 20 minutes later.
Deep in an extended stoppage time, it looked like the two Florida sides would share the spoils in their first meeting. Nani had other plans.
Florida is purple, indeed.
Do we have your attention now?
Orlando City would go on to win the imposing Group A, defeating NYCFC 3-1 and drawing eventual Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union in the final group game. The Lions eased past Montreal in the Round of 16 before coming up against LAFC, who were coming off a season in which they set the league record with 72 points, in the quarterfinals.
LAFC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer made a brilliant save to deny Nani the opener on a penalty kick early in the second half, and the Black and Gold would grab the lead five minutes later. Moments away from being knocked out of the tournament, Nani cued up another beauty, sending a perfect corner directly onto João Moutinho’s head.
Moutinho’s goal sent the game to a penalty-kick shootout. LAFC left back Jordan Harvey missed his team’s second spot kick, giving the Lions the advantage. Nani stepped up against Vermeer with a chance to put Orlando City through to the semifinals.
It was Nani’s celebration, his hand cupped to his ear, that sent Orlando City’s message to the rest of the league – this team is a force to be reckoned with.
Lighting up the Loons
Nani took it to the next level in the semifinals against Minnesota United. The captain delivered a virtuoso performance, scoring twice in six minutes in the first half to send Orlando through to the final. There’s not much we can add here, so enjoy some incredible goals.
Nani and the Lions stormed into the rest of the regular season on a roll, ripping off a Club-record 12-game unbeaten run and finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference, securing not only Orlando City’s first-ever playoff appearance, but a home match in Round One. It surprised no one paying any attention that the Lions’ first playoff opponent would be NYCFC, their constant foes since joining the league together in 2015.
The game will be remembered forever for its insane 22-minute penalty-kick shootout which saw defender Rodrigo Schlegel become a folk hero for his game-winning PK save, but the game also saw Orlando’s first-ever postseason goal. Nani drew a handball foul in the box on Gary Mackay-Steven, stepped to the spot and sent Sean Johnson twisting the wrong way with a spectacular slow-motion run-up.
It’s hard to think of anyone more deserving of scoring Orlando City’s first-ever MLS Cup Playoffs goal. The captain has left a permanent mark on the Club in his first two seasons. His 21 goals and 18 assists in all competitions speak for themselves, but Nani’s leadership and passion have made him a central figure in the short, but eventful, history of Orlando City SC.
All that’s left to do? Get excited for Year Three of Capitão.